Last week I posted a passage from my unpublished memoir, Spiral to Edinburgh, describing my first “escape” from Exhall Grange, a school in Coventry, England. This twelve-page excerpt is about what followed.
Exhall Grange was a boarding school for children with academic prospects who had either physical or vision limitations, but who weren’t paralyzed or blind. The school still exists, but today it describes itself as “specialist.”
Again, it is the spring of 1965, and I was eleven. My family lived eighty miles away in Sheffield. Also relevant to this excerpt, two hours’ recreation each evening on the field was mandatory. I was assigned to the “house” called Canterbury. Forbidden to keep our own shoes, we had to forage for a pair each morning in the room where our housemaster, Mr. Rodney, kept them and hope the pair we found fit. All names remain changed except for the headmaster’s.
The school assigned Pete, the fat boy, to watch me during evening recreation. Whenever I strayed near the gate, he stood there, grinning. “You wouldn’t be planning on doing it again, would you?”
One evening on the field, an older Canterbury boy with a shock of white hair introduced himself as Robert Moseby.
“Oh, you must be Mose,” I said. I’d heard his name mentioned. From the sly way other boys spoke about him, he was a figure of fun. I didn’t know why. He was fifteen and, like the other older Canterbury boys, lived downstairs.
“I admire what you did the other night,” he said, in an offhand way, not quite looking at me. “I’ve been wanting to get out of here for a long time.”
“So it’s not just me.”
When I asked where he came from, he said Maidstone, a town in Kent, southeast of London. He turned his gaze on me. “Have you thought about how you’d do it if you got a second chance?”
“You aren’t going to tell Rodney, are you?” Mr. Rodney was our housemaster.
“I might want to join you, if you didn’t mind.”
Was he lying? I didn’t think so. Though I’d thought about a plan, I couldn’t work out the details. It would help to discuss them with someone.
I said, “Well, I have thought about it.”
“Tell me. I might have some ideas.”
I hesitated one last time, and then committed myself. “I couldn’t do it during recreation again. They’ve got some boy shadowing me.”
“Pete. I waited till he got distracted before coming over. Even when he isn’t watching you, he’s got an eye on that gate you got through.”
“So it would have to be early in the morning, before anyone’s up.”
Mose put his hand under his chin. “That’s good. The front door isn’t locked from inside.”
“I’d wondered about that. Thanks.”
“How would you go from there?” This was one of the details I hadn’t worked out, but he didn’t wait for an answer. “You couldn’t take the road into Coventry because that’s where they’d be looking for you. There’s a railway crossing not far from here. If I were you, I’d go there and walk along the tracks to the next crossing. Then maybe you could get back onto the road and hitch a ride to a train station in a different town. They’d never think of that.”
“That’s clever, Mose.”
“I told you, you got me thinking. Now, what about money?”
Here was another detail. The school didn’t allow us to keep any cash. They maintained a ledger for the pocket money our parents sent us. On Saturday mornings we could buy “tuck,” the school word for candy, from Mr. Rodney, with the price applied against our ledger balance. Even the older boys were given money only when they went out on weekends.
I said, “When I went into Coventry, I talked my way out of paying the fare on a bus.”
“Using your wits. That’s what it takes.”
Another day I found myself alone in the dorm room with Dave, whose bed was opposite mine. He said, “Do you think you’ll try again? Escape, I mean.”
I turned “escape” over in my mind. It had the air of a World War II adventure, but there was nothing glamorous about what I’d done.
Aloud, I said, “Who knows.”
“I live in Rotherham,” he said. It was a town near Sheffield. “If there’s a next time, I’d like to go with you.”
Our roommate, John, sauntered in. “I hear two birds tweeting. What’s up?” He shuffled to his bed in the corner, next to Dave’s.
Dave said, “I was saying I’d like to join in if he, you know, takes off again.”
I was horrified. Dave had correctly inferred that I planned another escape, and now all Canterbury, if not the school, would know.
“Count me in, too,” John said.
I relaxed. A fellow conspirator would surely keep silent.
So now there were four. Mose had confirmed his interest. We never met as a group, and I did all the communicating.
I was doubtful about John’s following through. He liked to act grown-up, which made it unlikely he’d break the rules when the moment came. Besides, he lived in the south, the opposite direction from Sheffield and Rotherham. I could see Dave taking risks. But I felt most confident about Mose, even though he also lived south. He’d been the one who helped formulate the plan.
As it turned out, I was right about John. He dropped out the day before the attempt. His excuses were lame, but no more so than his reasons for joining.
At five on Monday morning, having kept myself awake all night, I got up, dressed and crossed the room. “Dave,” I whispered.
“Are you still on?”
“Look, I’ve been thinking. I’d like to join you, but there are some —”
“I understand,” I said. I couldn’t afford to wait for him to finish rationalizing.
“Good luck,” he whispered.
Had the other boys heard? Would John decide to play hero and denounce the scheme?
I walked in stockinged feet to the landing and down the stairs. The picture window ahead of me was filled with bright yellow streaks of sunrise. It was the first dawn I’d seen except in photographs and on black-and-white television.
Mose emerged from a shadow when I reached the ground floor, and we went straight to the shoe room. The pair I picked out was too small, but with no time to dawdle, I forced them on. We hurried across the recreation field to the gate where Pete had reveled in barring my way during evening recreation.
Mose led the way to the railway crossing, where I followed him onto the tracks. We stepped with exaggerated strides from tie to tie for a mile or two or more of rural railway. Everywhere around us was still, except for the dawn unfolding, and the air was fresh and clear. I crimped my toes inside my shoes, and my long paces got easier as I fell into a rhythm, so different from a train’s clackety-clack. No trains came.
Just short of the next crossing, a man yelled out from a signal box. We ran off down a road, which suited Mose’s plan just fine. We were headed for Nuneaton, a town I’d never heard of before, and we hitched a ride with a man who was in no more of a mood to talk than we.
Pacing up and down the empty street in front of the Nuneaton Station, we debated. We had to buy train tickets even to gain admission to the platform. Later we’d need to present the tickets to inspectors on the train and again to yet more inspectors when we arrived at our destination. With no money to buy them, that was three obstacles to overcome. But we could solve only one problem at a time, and right now that was how to get onto the Nuneaton platform.
Mose suggested we go out of view of the station, work our way back along the tracks and climb onto the platform.
“But what if a train comes in at that moment?” I said.
“Okay, we’ll have to brazen our way past the ticket office. I’ll come up with a story.”
Entering the station, we found ourselves in a narrow corridor. It had all the makings of a trap, but turning back would have looked suspicious to anyone watching. After the corridor took a left turn, the ticket office loomed ahead of us. No one was on duty. The open-air platform was also empty. We hadn’t needed to make up a story after all.
Mose planned on going with me to Sheffield, though far out of his way, then turning around at the station for London and onto his sister’s place in Maidstone. I studied the timetable posted on the wall.
“I don’t see any train to Sheffield,” I said. “Do you?”
Mose’s pink eyes gazed at the poster. “Hmm.”
I pointed to the line for the next train. “How about Rugby?”
He turned to me in delight. “We can go anywhere from Rugby. What time did you say it arrives?”
It had never occurred to me that Mose couldn’t read. How strange for someone in a school for the brightest handicapped children. Or perhaps he couldn’t see the timetable. I hadn’t thought his vision was that bad, but I’d had no way of knowing.
Our train arrived in less than half an hour. On board, I worried about ticket inspectors, but no one, official or otherwise, spoke to us.
Once again a timetable on a wall at the Rugby Station posted no trains to Sheffield. I read other destinations aloud, and we tried to guess which would lead us to a line that did stop in Sheffield. Unlike the tiny, open-air station at Nuneaton, this one was a huge, enclosed building with several platforms. As we talked through our options, we walked around, hoping to appear something between purposeful and leisurely to avoid attracting the interest of the railway police.
At another part of the station we passed a notice board with a different timetable, and I discovered it was for a second station in Rugby. It listed a 4:30 p.m. train to Sheffield.
The change of stations meant passing through the ticket barrier, where inspectors were waiting. We concocted a story that we’d come to say goodbye to a relative and, building on our experience at Nuneaton, that to our surprise we’d found no one on duty at the barrier.
“I’ll go first,” Mose said.
“We should do it together. They’ll wonder when they see me waiting to follow.”
“No. We might both get caught.”
I was frightened enough to be persuaded. As he went alone to the ticket barrier, I pretended to study a timetable. Out of the corner of my eye I saw him talking to an official. Under his shock of white hair, he looked at ease. Then he waved me over, and we passed through the barrier together.
It was mid-morning as we entered the streets of Rugby.
“We shouldn’t go there right away,” I said. “Someone will notice if we’re waiting around for hours.”
“I want to make sure we know where it is,” Mose said, for once insistent.
We made it there easily, thanks to the directions we got from incurious passersby. I figured they viewed the pair of us as a grown boy escorting a youngster to an appointment.
It was a tiny, sleepy station in a setting of grass banks. We got on the platform by telling the ticket collector we were trainspotters. As it happened, only long and tedious freight trains came through.
Two or three hours later there must have been a change of ticket collectors because a man shouted at us. We dashed onto the tracks and ran to the nearby road, which we strolled up and down to pass the time and shake off nerves.
“We’re never going to get past this bloke,” Mose said.
“So what do you suggest, young man?”
“We have no choice but to do what you said at Nuneaton.”
Five minutes before the train was due, we ran back along the tracks and clambered onto the platform. No one shouted at us, and the train came on time.
It was a more imposing train than the one we’d taken earlier, with compartments and a corridor. No compartment was empty, so we chose one occupied by a man buried in a newspaper. He looked up at our arrival and offered a few pleasantries before returning to his paper.
On the alert, Mose saw the ticket inspector entering the carriage. As soon as he went inside the first compartment, we fled to the Gents, even though the man with the newspaper was bound to tell the inspector about us and the toilet was an obvious hiding place. Afraid to risk making a sound by moving and breathing shallowly against the fetid air, we stood in the cramped space and waited. No one knocked.
Mose whispered, “We can’t stay here. Someone’s going to want to use it.”
I opened the door and stepped out. No sign of the inspector. This time we found an empty compartment, which freed us to finalize our plan.
“Do you know your way home from the station?” Mose said.
“Yes. But really, Mose, we haven’t eaten since last night. You must come home with me. Mum will make dinner for us and then bring you back to the station.”
“Of course. Mum would never let anyone go hungry.”
I even had a notion that my parents would give him money for a ticket. In my single-minded state, I believed what I was saying.
The train reached Sheffield’s Midland Station and once again we looked across at a row of ticket inspectors. At a busy station late in rush-hour, we wouldn’t get away with pretending we’d gone on the platform when no one was on duty.
“I’ll go talk to them,” Mose said.
“No,” I said. “I’ve been thinking about how we got past the inspectors at Rugby. You did a fantastic job, but I have a feeling they took pity on us.”
“I don’t want you to get in trouble if something goes wrong.”
“You’re being really great, Mose, but I bet they’ve already seen us. I think we have to go through together. I’ll do my best.”
We approached the barrier and the intimidating inspectors’ uniforms and got on line.
“Tickets?” said the woman inspector at the head of our line.
“We came to see someone off,” Mose said.
“But you had to buy a ticket for platform admission.” She was pleasant but firm.
I spoke up. “We didn’t realize that. An inspector let us through. Maybe he was being nice to us.”
The inspector looked from one to the other of us. “All right,” she said. “But next time remember.”
Then we were strolling in the still bright evening on the crescent road in front of the Midland Station. I knew exactly where to catch the bus.
“Don’t run,” Mose said, out of the side of his mouth.
“I’m trying not to.”
“Excuse me,” a woman shouted behind us.
Mose said softly, “Don’t turn around.”
The yell came again, closer this time. We kept walking, but I was picking up my pace and Mose was keeping up with me. Did our lack of curiosity itself proclaim our guilt?
The woman proved to be the ticket inspector. She caught up and planted herself before us. “Look, I’ve thought it over. I’m sure I didn’t see you on my rounds.”
“Maybe we were in the toilets,” I said.
“I must ask you to come back with me.”
Questioned on my own by two policemen in a back office, I envisioned a jail cell waiting for me deep under the Midland Station and told the truth. They asked how we’d made it to each of our destinations and through ticket barriers. They were sternly skeptical, and I felt bad for the ticket collectors and inspectors we’d encountered and, at Nuneaton, not encountered.
I was relieved when the police said they’d call my parents to drive us home. Mum did give Mose dinner, but in the morning a man came to drive him back to Exhall Grange. I was allowed to stay home for two more days.
My memoir goes on to detail the strangely vindictive ways the school’s teachers and administrators treated me after this episode. However, the school’s headmaster was different, and his kindness helped me tolerate my remaining months there. What follows was my first encounter with him. My parents had just driven me back to the school:
It was late when Mum and Dad left. I ate a meal by myself in the Canterbury dining hall. As I finished, the headmaster, Mr. Marshall, came in and sat across from me. We were alone in the large room. I braced myself.
He said, “I know it’s difficult, away from home, new routines, new people. It’s hard to adjust.”
I looked at him in surprise. If anyone should be angry, it was him. He’d founded Exhall Grange, or at any rate I’d been told it was his idea.
He had a brown moustache that made him seem old despite his youthful cheeks and piercing eyes. I’d always found a moustache disturbing. It occurred to me that I could get used to it on him.
“I’d like the school to work out for you,” he said. “Do you think you can give it a chance?”
“Tomorrow’s a new day.” He stood, squeezed my shoulder and strode to the exit.
Weeks later, there was my only other encounter with Mose:
Walking past Canterbury one afternoon, I noticed an open door that had always been closed. I glanced inside to see a familiar shock of white hair.
“Hello, Mose,” I said, quietly.
He looked up from his task, mopping the floor, and smiled. “How goes it?”
“I’m managing. How about you?”
I hoped it wasn’t a cruel question. The school was making him do chores as punishment and denying him the privileges of his age, such as going out on weekends.
“Great,” he said, his smile changing from welcoming to forced.
We said nothing else. He’d been forbidden to speak to me, and I didn’t want to get him into more trouble. It already felt unfair that I wasn’t being punished like him, not officially.
Since our day together I’d heard he had a history of shoplifting and truancy. They also said he came from a broken home. But I remembered he’d planned on going to Maidstone because his sister lived there, and he’d spoken as gently about her as he’d treated me.
I raised my hand in a half wave of goodbye, but he’d turned away.
Note: Next week, one more Exhall Grange episode.